Critics of Defense Acquisition May Be Aiming at the Wrong Targets

11/29/2010
By Sandra I. Erwin
The U.S. Army is the best equipped in the world. Yet the acquisition work force is continually vilified by the Defense Department’s senior leadership, laments Col. John “Buck” Surdu, military deputy at the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command Communications-Electronics Center, or CERDEC.
“It’s a little frustrating for folks who devoted their lives to delivering the best technology to our soldiers … [These folks are being] universally decried as the enemy … and constantly bashed by the people they’re trying to serve,” Surdu tells reporters Nov. 29 during abloggers roundtable.
Much of the flak has been about the slow pace of the military procurement system. Senior leaders such asDefense Secretary Robert Gates and Army Vice Chief of StaffGen. Peter Chiarelli have been among the most vocal critics of the acquisition process. They have knocked procurement bureaucracies for being out of touch with the needs of deployed troops and too slow to capture the technology that already is available in the civilian world.
Surdu agrees, to some extent.
“I will tell the acquisition system is too slow in many cases,” says Surdu. But the critics in this case are chasing the wrong suspects, he contends. “We typically want to beat up the program managers. But they are only part of the problem.”
So who else should be blamed? According to Surdu, much of the fault lies with the “requirements” writers who draw up the technical specifications for a new weapon system. That would be the Army Training and Doctrine Command’s “capabilities managers,” or TRADOC CMs.
“The acquisition process involves a whole lot of folks before it gets to the program managers,” he says. “Those are the TRADOC folks whose job is to define requirements and operating concepts.” The TRADOC capability manager “monitors the requirements and is there to ensure that the program manager meets those requirements,” Surdu explains.
The trouble is that TRADOC managers write requirements that are “out of touch with reality,” he says. In most cases they lack the technical expertise and fail to consult with the Army’s scientists and engineers to ensure that a system’s requirements are attainable within a sensible timeframe, he notes.
What also irks Surdu is that TRADOC managers, who are responsible for delaying programs, are never held accountable or even mentioned in dozens of acquisition reform studies that have been published over the past three decades.
“It would be better if, in a systematic way, the requirements community would work with science and technology community so we can tell them that requirements documents are reasonable,” Surdu says. In instances when they are “stretching the science,” the documents should reflect that a particular system is based on immature technology and may not be ready for several years. “TRADOC sometimes writes requirements documents that just don’t make sense,” he says.
Despite such glum assessment, Surdu says, there are glimmers of hope that things may change in the future.
The Army’s “request for proposals” for a new ground combat vehicle is showing signs that TRADOC may be learning to temper unrealistic ambitions, he says. The Army released an RFP earlier this year but had to withdraw it after senior officials pointed out that the solicitation was asking for technologies that simply would not be available within the program’s set timeline of seven years. The revised RFP “still has issues, from our standpoint,” Surdu says. “But it’s way better than the document we saw years ago.” Army technologists were allowed to review it, and provided more than 500 comments on what they considered overreaching requirements.
“Some of what we try to do with acquisition is ill conceived,” he says. That reason is that “TRADOC tries to predict what the threat will look like in 20 years,” Surdu says. “That’s risky. … We’re almost always going to guess wrong.” Instead, “I would argue, we need to stop trying to guess what the enemy is going to look like and build modular, expandable, scalable technology.”
In the case of the ground combat vehicle, simpler can be better, he says. Historians frequently argue about which World War II tank was the best. Some favor the German Panther, others the Russian T-34. In Surdu’s opinion, the winner was the U.S. Army’s Sherman tank, which remained in service until 1978 “because it of its ability to be upgraded and improved over time.” The Army should design a new vehicle so that it can be upgraded and reconfigured in the coming decades, regardless of what enemies the United States might face. “It needs to have a big, wide data bus, an over-engineered suspension and transmission and engine, and the ability to produce lots of watts of electricity,” he says. Everything else can be added on.
A cultural gulf between TRADOC and program managers today makes it difficult to make rational decisions in weapons programs, says Surdu. Sometimes PMs need to be able to make tradeoffs — give up a certain feature, for example, in order to gain other benefits such as lower cost or faster delivery. “Systems engineers do this,” Surdu says. “But often are perceived as trying to feather their nest or trying to defraud the Army,” he says.
Until there is a better “working relationship” between program managers and TRADOC, none of the current pitfalls in military acquisition will be overcome, he says.
Surdu also had harsh words for critics who bash military technology for lagging far behind commercial industries. It is a common myth that breakthroughs such as the iPhone happened overnight, he says. At least 35 years of R&D went into making the iPhone, Surdu asserts. For the Army to be able to use these devices in combat, it will take three to four years of technology development because commercial cell phones don’t work in remote areas where there are no cell towers. “Our cell towers will have to either be sitting in unmanned aircraft or in the back of Humvees. Nobody in the commercial industry is working on the technology that allows that call transfer when the base stations are moving,” he says. CERDEC is trying to come up with a fix, but it will take time, he says.

Topics: Procurement, Acquisition Reform, Defense Department

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